There is going to be a lot going on at Value City Arena on Thursday night.
The arena is expected to welcome in what will be the six millionth fan. Assuming he or she is in the building roughly 15 minutes before the opening tip, the winner will be present to see No. 19 Ohio State honor two senior players and three managers before what is their final home game. At halftime, the Buckeyes will recognize members of the 1960 national championship team with a list of honorees that includes, among others, Jerry Lucas and Bobby Knight.
Then, of course, is the reason for the season: Ohio State will host No. 23 Illinois with a chance to continue a second-half surge toward the postseason.
It’s admittedly a full slate.
"It’s a big game for us," senior forward Andre Wesson said Wednesday afternoon. "We know we need these two wins this week and it can definitely help us in the standings going into the Big Ten tournament. Pushing those emotions aside to realize that we need these two games is going to be big."
That would be a help against what are oddly two single-play games to close the regular season. Owing to the Big Ten’s unbalanced, 20-game schedule, the Buckeyes have played 18 games without facing either Illinois or Michigan State, their final two opponents.
Until now, Ohio State’s coaches have only seen the likes of sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu or leading Big Ten freshman of the year candidate Kofi Cockburn when the Fighting Illini have popped up on film while scouting other teams. It’s not just the personnel that require changes to the plans, however: it’s how Illinois plays, period.
After playing a high-pressure, high risk/reward style of defense during coach Brad Underwood’s first two seasons that focused on denying ball reversals and often resulted in either a turnover or a wide-open layup, the Illini have utilized a more conventional defensive style this season.
Wins aside, the defensive numbers show a drastic change. After finishing No. 129 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency two years ago and No. 108 last season, the Illini are 28th this season. And after finishing 282nd and 245th, respectively, during the last two seasons in effective field-goal percentage defense, Illinois is No. 62 this season.
"They were obviously very unique defensively in the past couple years and Brad had success in previous places playing that way, but they did change playing that way defensively," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. "They’ve got good defensive players, good length, good size, good rim protection. They’re disciplined at what they do."
They also don’t foul at nearly as high of a rate as they have. Illinois averaged 22.5 fouls per game during Underwood’s first season and 21.2 last year but is committing only 15.7 per game this year. In three meetings with Underwood’s Illinois teams, Ohio State has attempted an average of 30.0 free throws.
"They don’t foul you, and I think that’s probably the biggest adjustment," Holtmann said. "They just do a good job with their group. You can see how the change has paid dividends."
In between halves, the Buckeyes will recognize their only national championship team. Holtmann has gotten to know some members of the team, he said, but hasn’t spoken with Knight since the days when Holtmann was an assistant coach.
"I’ve enjoyed all the stories when I’ve interacted with them or people that have been a part of that team or around that team," Holtmann said. "I wouldn’t say my interaction has been, it’s been what you’d expect. They obviously are the lone national champion men’s basketball team here, so as much as I can you’re trying to glean what that experience was all about."
So there will be plenty to cope with for Ohio State on Thursday night, and that’s even before Danny Hummer and Wesson speak to the crowd following the final horn.
"It’s going to be bittersweet, for sure," Wesson said. "My journey coming to an end here, I’m excited for the next phase but there’s a lot of great memories here with my teammates past and present. It’s going to be special for sure."